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Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragonsBut in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that’s the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you’re feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty’s Dragon.

I can’t really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the deepest in both parties’ lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!), which makes it even more fun in a lot of ways. Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn’t so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik’s world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy … with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey’s books another look (it’s been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

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Read these, not that

Not this

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slBelgravia-by-Julian-Fellowes-250ightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested in $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even within those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found it improved considerable – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

Read these!

city of mirrorsEnough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with The Passage, back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through thought it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and, as it happens, a fun return to the 1990s and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. eligibleAnd I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical – Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

colin firth

Just because.

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.

 

 

 

 

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Crime fiction, here and there, cozy and not, on page and screen

Roberta Isleib by Carol Tedesco.jpg

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib. Photo by Carol Tedesco

I recently interviewed Lucy Burdette, who is really Roberta Isleib, who lives in Key West and writes the Key West Food Critic Mysteries. The seventh installment in the series, Killer Takeout, publishes on April 5.

It’s a “cozy” mystery, which means no blood or sex on the page, as Roberta tells me during the interview. Not my usual thing but I enkiller takeout coverjoyed her book, which is set in the run-up to Fantasy Fest … with a hurricane bearing down. It didn’t even give me too much of a Wilma flashback. I especially admired how she addressed the tensions among Conchs, yearround locals and snowbird socialites. That’s a large — and growing — aspect of life down here, at least from my perspective.

At the same time, my husband and I have been watching the second season of Bosch on Amazon Prime (no spoilers, please — we’re only halfway through). I liked the first season fine but the second one is much better. The best part is that I haven’t read any of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. Most of my crime fiction reading is

Bosch

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch.

historical and just about all of my contemporary crime fiction reading has been set in Florida (Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, et. al.). But now I’ve got the first Bosch book, The Black Echo, on order from the library.

And I feel like I’m primed for L.A., not only by watching the TV show — which manages to make L.A. look fairly attractive, probably because nobody on there ever spends time stuck in traffic — but also because I just finished Shaker by Scott Frank. I read a short story about it in Entertainment Weekly and my most exshakercellent local library already had a copy. Frank is a screenwriter and this is a first novel – my opinion has been that screenwriters write excellent thrillers and crime fiction because they know how to move a plot along, as well as how to write dialogue. This one bolsters my theory and is also an excellent option for people who are jonesing for Elmore Leonard now that the master has left us. Frank wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty and it shows, though he doesn’t really have Leonard’s funny vein. He’s not trying to be funny, though, so that’s cool.

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Tennessee Williams, Remembered

I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up, but it seems like March is my month to do a story about Tennessee Williams.

tennessee williams porch

Tennessee at home in Key West. Photo from the Monroe County Public Library, Ida Woodward Barron Collection.

Last year, it was about the efforts of the new(ish) Tennessee Williams exhibit to boost the writer’s profile in Key West. And good thing, too — he was much more of a Key Wester than that Hemingway dude, for all of his fishing and his cats and whatnot.

This year, I did a piece about the Rose Tattoo – sixty years ago this month, Anna Magnani won an Academy Award for her role as Serafina Delle Rose. And a lovely Italian couple has recently bought and restored the house that was used in the movie, partially filmed here.

It’s not one of Williams’ better known works at this point. But it is interesting especially for one aspect – it has a happy ending.

 

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Girls, Gone and On Trains

I finally got around to reading The Girl On The Train — I feel less obliged to occasionally read hot bestsellers now than I did when I worked at the library. But I still like to keep up with the zeitgeist, at least with a book that I might like anyway.

And I’m a little predisposed to root for books by female crime fiction writers, because feminism and also because I was so impressed with our all-star lineup from the 2014 Key West Literary SeminarGirl on train cover.jpg (Lippman! Flynn! Abbott! Locke! Nunn! Faye! Gerritsen! George!).

It took me two tries to really get into The Girl On The Train and I found it harder to read, generally, than Gone Girl. The two have been frequently compared and not just for the overlap in the titles. Both feature alternating, unreliable narrators and a wife gone MIA. And I must say the finales of both strain plausibility. But these are crime thrillers.

I found Girl On The Train’s narrators are much more difficult — by which I mean uncomfortable — heads to live inside. Rachel is a mess and Megan is a pain in the ass, at least initially. Both of Gillian Flynn’s narrators in Gone Girl, Nick and Amy, had problems but both were attractive or maybe charismatic in some weird way. At least to me.

I stuck with Girl On The Train the second time, though, and I’m glad I did. Both because I got to find out who did it, and because now I’ve read the book before it becomes a big deal with the movie. And I will admit that after I finished it resonated for me a little more than Gone Girl. Not enough for a full blown book hangover, where I can’t really get into another book because my head is still in the last one. But more than I expected.

 

 

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Gen X-ercise

redoaksGeneration X is having a moment. I base this assertion on two items of media I consumed over the weekend.

The first was an episode of Slate’s The Gist, which is an excellent new podcast by Gen X-er Mike Pesca. Specifically, it was Pesca’s spiel at the end of the episode about Schoolhouse Rock, those classic cartoon shorts from the 1970s that taught us about grammar, math and legislative process. They are the subject of a special this Sunday on ABC. If I had cable, I’d watch it.

The second was the pilot of a new TV series on Amazon called Red Oaks. It’s set in a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985, which is the summer between high school and college for the main characters. It was also that summer for me.

Gen X-ers have to grab our moments because we don’t get many of them. And we treasure them because it feels like that’s all we get. It’s the inevitable consequence of being caught in the sociocultural demographic vise between the Baby Boomers and their progeny, the Millennials. So we got to spend our youth resenting the Boomers and our maturity watching Millenials take center stage. Based on everything I’ve read and the word of many people I trust, I’d probably like Girls, the Lena Dunham show on HBO. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it.

(Important note: While I am going to continue bitching throughout this post about both generations, I am aware that these are gross generalizations — and that some of my favorite people on earth and good friends are in each of them. So please don’t take it personally.)

Both of these media experiences — especially coming on the same day! — were sweet because we Gen X-ers, even as we head toward our 50s, don’t get much of a chance for nostalgia. The Boomers own that territory, from the Wonder Years to classic rock (does anyone really need the Eagles or Led Zeppelin on the airwaves any more?????). The Millennials are already going there, rhapsodizing about shows that were apparently on Nickelodeon while we Gen X-ers were working crappy jobs and sporting unflattering hairstyles.

So I’m going to revel in our little moment here, while we’ve got it. I hope Amazon picks up Red Oaks. I may watch some YouTubes of Schoolhouse Rock or go see if the library still has that DVD. And I would like to point out that while the generations before and after us have had their cultural impacts — oh, have they had their cultural impacts — that a few of us have managed to stand out. Specifically, I’d like to appreciate:

  • Jon Stewart. If I had to choose one person as the voice of our generation, it would be him. Because he is funny as hell, and smart as hell. If there is any legacy bestowed on us by the Boomers that we have enthusiastically furthered it is the erosion of institutional authority. Stewart embodies our generation’s tightrope walk between idealism and cynicism and he embodies it by constantly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes — whether that emperor is Ronald Reagan or Jerry Garcia.
  • Wes Anderson. Speaking of nostalgia — almost every one of his movies is designed to hit that late ’60s, early ’70s analog sweet spot in our memory banks. And if his films have one overarching themes, it is fathers — and father relationships from the generation before parents thought they were supposed to be their kids’ friends.
  • Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz. I remember, in college in the ’80s, when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were all the rage, I came across a copy of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and immediately knew this guy was the real deal. I didn’t hear about Diaz till later because he’s even closer to my age but wow, what a talent. One thing I really appreciate about both of them is their appreciation for weirdness in the genre/scifi/comics/whatever sense.

I know this Moment isn’t going to last long. And just thinking about it long enough to write this blog post has me wondering: Maybe there’s an advantage to our squeezed-in-the-middle demographic position. There’s the pleasure of feeling aggrieved, which is always satisfying, but more importantly there’s the pleasure of being part of a more select club. I always attributed my underdog sympathies to growing up as a Red Sox fan … but now I wonder if it’s more of a generational tendency. Our time was going to come, and then it was already gone. But we’re still here.

 

 

 

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Project Enterprise: The second. The greatest. The Wrath of Khan.

khan 2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I love this movie just as much as I did the first time I saw it at the Hampshire Mall. I must have seen it at least five times in the theater, and that wasn’t so easy for me, living out in the country. Why did I love it so? I was just the right age, I guess — it was during that period of Star Wars/Raiders movies that hit the early adolescent geek sweet spot. And it touched on all the great things about the Star Trek world while minimizing the cheesy/embarrassing aspects. So there. I don’t think they’ll ever top this one, though I hope J.J. Abrams will keep trying.

Overall: A

 Plot: A Whoever came up with the idea of a follow-up on the original series episode “Space Seed” was a genius. A GENIUS. Everyone rose to the occasion, most especially Ricardo Montalban. An incredible recovery from the bore-fest of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Costumes: B+ Another good recovery, though there is no getting around the cheesiness of uniform jumpsuits (like that worn by young David Marcus) and McCoy’s jumpsuit-with-chaps-for-pants in an early scene is still haunting me. The grade really should be higher, though, to reflect the awesomeness of the garb put together by Khan and his klan in very challenging conditions. I especially like what they do with the appropriated Starfleet-wear. The sets are also greatly improved.

New cast members: B Saavik is awesome. Perhaps Kirstie Alley’s greatest role, though it didn’t allow for her comic chops. Carol Marcus is fine, and David Marcus is OK. (My husband noted that he was “that kid from Square Pegs” but since I was a deprived adolescent who didn’t have cable and had a lot of homework and chores that seriously limited my TV viewing time in the ’80s, I never saw that show. I never saw 21 Jump Street, either. OK????) Khan’s son I find alternately fascinating and totally miscast — like he really belongs in a video for a middling metal band.

F/X: A- Another stellar recovery — they backed off on the overly long tracking shots of spaceships and concentrated on stuff that moves the story along. Not quite the right category but the score is great, too — evidently the work of a young James Horner, which I had never noticed before.

Series rank: 1. Wrath of Khan 2. The Motion Picture

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